Riots and the endless chatter

It’s hard to write about anything else today. The papers full of images of buildings and cars burning, reports of looting scattered across London and in other cities besides, police and blue tape everywhere. Last night I saw youths – kids, really – wheeling bicycles out of a smashed-in bike shop, a buzz of excitement everywhere, with occasional flickers of outright violence against property if not against people.

And across the media, across the blogosphere, the endless cascades of journalists, residents, ‘experts’, ‘community representatives’ – with some claiming that the riots bear out the claims they have been making for years. In this view, rioting is either the inevitable result of feral youth discovering Twitter (says the right), or the equally inevitable result of racist police, Tory cuts and/or unbending inequality (says the left). All of which makes me slightly uncomfortable.

It’s easy for us to interpret these events through the prism of our prior convictions. It’s easy to see the links between inequality and violent crime and to rush to see these events through these eyes. But few people have any real idea of exactly what’s going on, and it’s debatable whether we’ll ever convincingly disentangle the mess of possible causes – and certainly not overnight.  Of the various explanations:

  • It’s not an explanation to condemn these youths as ‘vicious thugs’, ‘brazen criminals’, ‘feral youth’ or any of the other usual tropes. I want to know why this has happened, rather than to excuse the unexcusable.
  • These riots are obviously not a simple political protest. They may have been prompted by the killing of Mark Duggan by police and the feeling that his family’s concerns were being ignored, but in the main these have been looting pure and simple.
  • It can be argued that this is about institutional racism, and certainly the tensions with the police have contributed. But I agree with Mary Riddell that for all the undoubted racism that still exists, racism is an unsatisfactory explanation in a Britain where multiculturalism is the norm rather than the exception.
  • The best explanations – including Laurie Penny’s wonderful post, but also found elsewhere across the political spectrum – are those that link structural concerns to a feeling of anger, of marginalization, of low stakes in society. As Laurie Penny puts it:

“Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night. And now people have lost their homes, and the country is tearing itself apart.”

And yet, and yet, and yet…

Do we have to draw on cuts and inequality to explain why teenagers are angry? Teenagerhood is a constructed time of confusion, powerlessness, frustration and fears, leaving many bubbling up to bursting point. As I wandered past the angry, excited and generally unthreatening kids last night, my friend told me about the anger she quite justifiably felt as a teenager, and how she sympathised with their desire to feel that sense of power and authority coursing through their veins. (Slightly embarrassingly, she was going up to kids and saying ‘good luck’ as we went past – I don’t know who was most confused…). For a few nights only, the streets belong to the youth, and the rest of us walk through knowing that we do so only with their tacit approval.

But if this is the case, then the anger behind these outbursts is hard to trace. It was found in leafy Ealing as well as the inner city. It might be a resistance to the powerlessness of those who are marginalised by global capitalism and political elites, but then again, it might be simple opportunism that let the rage of many teenagers run riot – prompted by a demonstration that the police were unable to stop them, and fuelled by social networks new and old.

In short: I don’t know, I don’t believe anyone that says they know, and I instinctively dislike trying to use this to buttress my existing prejudices. All of which means this is writing as a form of therapy rather than insight – my way of trying to come to terms with confusion mingled with tiredness, after being stranded away from home as taxi drivers steadfastly refused to come near to my friend’s house, and we watched pictures on the BBC News of the streets we’d just walked along.

About Ben Baumberg Geiger

I am a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where I write articles and short blog posts. I have a wide range of research interests, at the moment focusing on disability, the workplace, inequality, deservingness and the future of the benefits system, and the relationship between evidence and policy. You can find out more about me at
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12 Responses to Riots and the endless chatter

  1. Dominique says:

    I think the answer to your question(s), Ben, is “both/and”: the riots are the result of both systemic marginalization and not-so-benign neglect by the state, and of the confusion, anger, and feelings of powerlessness that are the hallmarks of adolescence in Western cultures (where “youth” is simultaneously deified and demonized). So, if this mess is ever to be disentangled, then perhaps we need to start by looking at how each feeds into the other.

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      Thanks Dominique – like my criminologist friend I was talking to today, I think you’re completely right that we need to be sensitive to the complex combination of things that’s driving this. I’m sure there must be some research that looks at the intersections of class, race and the construction of adolescence; or at least, if there isn’t much yet, there’ll be loads coming over the next few years…

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  3. Ben Baumberg says:

    Other posts I read today and thought were better than most of the reflex responses (including my own reflex…) – the ever-present Camila Batmanghelidjh linking it to her justly-praised work with London’s youth, and the cynical humour of Sarah Carr on Inanities.

  4. I would recommend this article analyzing the French 2005 riots by F. Jobard:

    inequality seems to have played out through socio-economic segregation and through differentials in unemployment rates (suburbs vs city center). Jobard thus concludes that :

    “What these correlations, therefore, have to tell us is that urban segregation and recent migratory activities seem to play relatively more important roles in the manufacture of rioting than the more commonly quoted variables of poverty and race. We have no doubt, however, that other factors, such as relations between neighbouring communities and between such communities and their more ‘symbolic neighbour’ (the State and its representatives) may also play a part, as we shall now indicate in more detail.”

    you can also check out:

    as for the “adolescence” part of things, it is a false issue I think. Let’s leave it to psychologists to explain to us why things look different when one is 15-20 vs 30 and over. The real questions are: why riots now and not before or later? why here and not there? why not more? why not less? and I think inequality (as a proxy of a trillion other things!) is important to answer these questions.
    One interesting research question it seems at the moment is the following: why haven’t we seen widespread riots in the US for nearly 15 years now (last ones were Rodney King weren’t they?).

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  6. Very interesting analysis, but — your friend was wishing the rioters good luck? And you were “embarrassed”? I would have been ashamed, and so should she be. That’s disgraceful.

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      Fair point. In her defence, she wasn’t going up to the rioters who were attacking the door of the taxi firm, but rather the kids (they were 12-13 and tiny, even compared to me) who were standing watching over the road. I think she was worried that they were going to be attacked by police, and in their excitability and naivity get caught up in the fall-out from the real aggression. But I thought she was crazy, and told her so.

  7. Great post, Ben. Very helpful for people like me trying to understand what exactly is going on (and trying to avoid simplistic meta-narratives).

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